1936 chrysler archives

Automotive historians widely acknowledge that an obscure car made by Chrysler Corporation in the 1930s was the world's first streamlined car. Called the Airflow, this car was received well by the press but nearly put Chrysler Corporation out of business. The story is not only legendary among automotive historians, it is a great case study in marketing gone bad.  In short, Chrysler built a car that seemed like a great idea to automotive executives but it wasn't what the car-buying public wanted. Here's the story.

According to legend, one of Chrysler's senior engineers, Carl Breer, was watching a squadron of military aircraft on maneuvers in the late 1920s. These aircraft were highly streamlined for maximum speed.. Breer, knowing full well that these were very efficient designs, wondered why cars weren't built this way. He communicated this thought with Walter Chrysler and with Chrysler's blessing started research on this concept.

Breer, along with fellow Chrysler senior engineers, Fred Zeder and Owen Skelton, began a series of wind tunnel tests to identify the most efficient car body shapes. They even tapped the famous Orville Wright to help evaluate which designs were best. By April 1930, they had fully tested at least 50 scale models at their Highland Park wind tunnel site. One of these was to become Chrysler's new Airflow model.

The original idea had been that the Airflow would be introduced only as an advanced DeSoto automobile; Chryslers premium brand. But as the car began to take shape, Walter Chrysler became increasingly excited about it and this lead to the release of four different Airflow models (DeSoto, Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth). This would prove to be a poor decision.

Although initial response to the streamlined Airflow models was very strong, it soon tapered off.  Many said the cars were just ugly. Many design changes were executed for the 1935 model year but this didn't help much. Airflow production, which had totaled 10,839 for 1934, fell to 7,751 in 1935. Only one Airflow series was offered for 1937 under the Chrysler brand.

And then it was all over. Walter Chrysler, fell very ill during 1937 and the Chrysler ship was a drift for a while. While the Airflow may have signaled Chrysler's attempt to set itself apart from other manufacturers, the failure of the car in the marketplace caused the company to take a more conservative path with its future models. Until the debut of Virgil Exner's "Forward Look" cars of the mid 1950s, Chrysler's corporate styling was conservative and mainstream.

Our friends at Kayser Chrysler Center of Sauk City, WI, a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer, told us this interesting story:  It is rumored that Ferdinand Porsche imported an early Airflow coupe into Germany and using it for "inspiration" when designing the first Volkswagen Beetle. Indeed, if you take a look at any of the airflow coupes, a striking similarity can be seen.

Image Source: wikimedia.org